Spiritual Geographies: How Nuns Changed the U.S. West

Doctoral Dissertation


How do nuns intersect with and change our understandings of the U.S. settler empire and the expansion of Catholicism in the nineteenth century? To answer this question I examine two communities of nuns who saw the U.S. West as a place to fulfill their missions. I probe these women’s spiritual geography, which was both material and spiritual—it involved bodies, the land, and souls. Nuns sought to create Catholic landscapes in the West, which involved attempts to erase, claim, and re-narrate Indigenous places and the interweaving of racialized, gendered, and religious ideas in charitable endeavors and efforts to “improve” the land and local peoples. And nuns also sought to populate heaven. This dual focus on the material and spiritual allows me to retell both the Catholic story and the colonial story, so that the Catholic story becomes more material and the colonial story becomes more spiritual. Colonization was not just practiced by men with Bibles, guns, or pick axes. Women wearing habits, running schools, and making food also furthered the process by establishing institutions, reshaping landscapes, and shepherding the imaginations of young women. Catholic missions were not just run by male priests and brothers bent on saving souls. Nuns altered lifeways of established communities, introduced new ritual worlds, and physically reshaped the built environment of the West. I argue that nuns’ spiritual geography shaped their efforts to conquer the West for God, and that in these efforts they advanced, shaped, and sometimes mitigated the expanding U.S. settler empire and the expansion of Catholicism in the period. Yet in both movements nuns remained distinctive as they envisioned and practiced their own variation on both.


Attribute NameValues
Author Danae Jacobson
Contributor Jon T. Coleman, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Banner Code

Defense Date
  • 2019-05-06

Submission Date 2019-05-26
  • religion; nuns; Catholicism; colonization; westward expansion, U.S. West; settler colonialism

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units
Catalog Record


Please Note: You may encounter a delay before a download begins. Large or infrequently accessed files can take several minutes to retrieve from our archival storage system.